River Of Night – Snippet 19
“Naw, Mr. Green,” the broader man said, chewing on a candy bar with his mouth open. “It was the second place we hit and we’d already mostly filled the trucks, so when I saw you coming I stopped, figured we’d finish after talking to you.”
Harlan dropped his initial appraisal of the prisoners that he had to convert into productive assets and rounded on Biggs.
“You left the town incompletely secured after you took people out?” he asked mildly. “You left potential assets behind armed with knowledge of our tactics and awareness of our operations? And you plan to go back?”
“Sure, boss,” Biggs, replied, spraying a few bits of candy bar. “Soon as we drop this batch off.”
Sometimes the inability of these convicts to think past the next day blinded them to the consequences of their actions. Harlan made a mental note to address this in future recruiting. In Biggs case, he couldn’t think past his next meal. If the ex-con wasn’t a perfectly aggressive, somewhat biddable creature, Harlan would’ve already liquidated him. Lesson learned.
Harlan deliberately relaxed, striving for control. Hasty decisions yielded suboptimal results. Biggs was what he was, and no more. The self-styled Governor returned to his scan of the new batch of potential recruits.
“Standard priority selection for the assets that we extract from recovered towns goes to mechanics, engineers, doctors and… entertainers,” He asked skeptically. “Do any of these three fall into those categories, Mr. Biggs?”
He didn’t have to point to the three men in question.
“Well, no doctors or engineers, but the older guy says that he’s rebuilt classic cars.” answered Biggs.
“Classic cars? How many nineteen fifty-five Thunderbirds are we operating at this time, Mr. Biggs?”
“Hey, he’s as close to a mechanic as I have found!” Biggs protested vehemently. A few bits of snack food joined the remnants of chocolate that already decorated his beard. “If he doesn’t work out, we can use him for something else.”
“Really, Mr. Biggs?” Harlan said, pausing in front of the older tall man with a silver crew cut. “And why’s that?”
“What qualities does he seem to have that made it worthwhile to, as you say, ‘waste the gas to bring him in’?”
Harlan awaited a response, noting the bloody cut across the captive’s forehead, the watchful eyes, and the captive’s carefully closed expression.
Biggs appeared to be getting agitated. He swallowed and looked around the crossroads for inspiration.
“Ah, he looked older, maybe not as hot headed as some of the younger men, you know,” he said, offering the explanation in apologetic tones. “Also, we brought back a woman from the same place. Daughter in law, I think. Figures, it gives him a reason to make nice, not make trouble?”
Harlan looked over Biggs’ shoulder and noted the expression on the face of Biggs’ deputy. Davy Korbish, another recruit from Green’s prison bus scheme, was listening intently. A black swastika tat crept out of his collar and up the front of his throat. He was staring hard at the back of Biggs’ head.
Harlan walked around the end of the short coffle of three able-bodied men, striding until he stopped on the opposite side of the original subject of his examination. Loki, like a massive threatening shadow, strode behind him.
Internally, Harlan Green sighed. His lieutenants varied in their treatment of new inductees to their system. Sometimes solo captures were stuffed into the back of a truck under guard. Larger numbers of recruits, especially men, were handled more cautiously. Adults were usually tied together. Biggs had a thing for making sure that new people felt the weight of their new position so he kept them chained neck to neck with one hand cuffed to the coffle chain, leaving the other free for balance. It was a humiliating position and didn’t do much to incline inductees to cooperate.
It was clear that Biggs had missed an important detail. One that Harlan Green had not.
An object lesson was required.
This was going compromise the reliability of this batch of prisoners, but if Harlan couldn’t effectively delegate the basics of screening and collection, then his organization could not scale. And it had to scale, quickly.
“So you’re claiming that you personally examined the prisoner – carefully?” Harlan turned very deliberately to look at Biggs as he asked the next question. “Did you ask your deputy, the deputy that I appointed, for his opinion?”
Korbish’s eyes glittered.
“Well, sorta. But look, this dude, uh, I mean, he’s healthy enough,” Biggs said, swinging a ‘starter’ made of knotted line against the prisoner’s thigh. “Plenty of muscle for an older dude. Minimum, he can farm, or fetch and carry, or push cars off the road. Lots of cars to clear, boss. I mean, Governor.”
“What do you think?” Green addressed Korbish for the first time.
“Dude is trouble,” the shorter ex-con replied. “I smelt it. Tole’ Biggs. Said we should grease’m. Biggs said to shut up, that the dude was good labor material – would work hard.”
Green turned back to the object of their scrutiny. After a further moment of appraisal he made up his mind.
“And would you do that for us?” Harlan said, addressing the erect man directly. “Are you going to work cooperatively, contribute to the new community?”
Hard, pale blue eyes met the mild inquisitive gaze of the mastermind, but the man held his peace and nodded.
“Really?” Harlan said, extending his hand and slid the sleeve on the man’s torn work shirt higher, fully exposing the man’s forearm. It was decorated with a muddy, aging tattoo of a helmeted bulldog smoking a cigar. “I rather don’t think so. Mr. Loki, if you please.”
Loki stepped laterally, ensuring that nothing valuable was on the other side of the gray haired veteran. As fast as a man could blink, he drew his pistol and shot the prisoner in the head. The fresh corpse fell, dragging the other two chained men to their knees. A child screamed in the background.
“If you’d an ounce of imagination, you would have smelled the imprint that military service leaves on some men,” Harlan said, ignoring both the screams of surprise. He carefully stepped away from the growing pool of blood and faced Biggs. “If you’d consulted seriously with the partner that I assigned, you might’ve looked more closely. Had you bothered to check, you would’ve found the tattoo. You might’ve remembered my orders about law enforcement and military types. As long as they don’t actively resist, you keep them separate and under individual guard until I can personally inspect them. This one would never have worked for us after the way you treated him. The woman’s family is dead, yes? Dead from your operation? Instead of a potentially valuable asset, what you made for me, what you’ve wasted my time on, is just another corpse, in a world already full of corpses. Making more is easy. Very easy. Do you understand?”
“Maybe, I mean, uh, yes!” protested the ex-con, staring at the body laying at his feet. “But, you got to make an impression, and if they fight, well, you can’t leave resistance behind. But you can’t just waste my gleanings! That’s my money! We got rights, like you said!”
He subsided as Loki loomed behind Green.
Korbish carefully slid out from behind Biggs.
“Rights?” answered Harlan. He looked first at Biggs, and fought his impulse to slap the stupid candy bar out of his hand. He then at assembled group. “What you have are responsibilities. To me,” he said, tapping his own chest. A gleaming woven bracelet of fine fibers gleamed with blue and golden highlights against his narrow wrist.
“To them,” he said, gesturing to Eva, Loki and the other lieutenants.
“You even have a responsibility to the new recruits that we glean from this benighted countryside.”
His arm movement expanded to take in the huddle of chained men, the kids who were sobbing and the few women under guard.
“But you speak of your rights.” Harlan said, eyes glinting. He stepped closer to Biggs, purposefully invading the other man’s space, close enough that he was confident that Briggs could feel his boss’ breath on his face. Harlan lowered his voice, ensuring that only the ex-con could hear him. “I’m leaving this convoy. I’ve other teams to govern. After this fuck up, Briggs, you’ll immediately return to base camp with the gleanings accumulated so far. I can’t babysit you, Biggs. I’ll let you come back but it will be your last chance, Mr. Biggs. Your very. Last. Chance. When you return, you’ll complete the sweep and never, ever leave a job half done again. To do so is to risk this entire plan. Now apologize to me in a nice clear voice, so everyone can hear.”